What “Aura” We Talking About?

In an effort to draw conclusions from the last class discussion, I shall use my weekly blogging assignment as an opportunity to attempt to unpack the very complex concept of an “aura.” This idea is presented in viewing the impact of mechanical reproduction in the art world.

Let’s begin with Walter Benjamin’s definition:

“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its sub- stantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has ex- perienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object” (Benjamin, 221). 

This problematic term as described by Benjamin takes different meanings based upon the medium with which it is associated. In discussing art history, for example, the Mona Lisa occupied much of our class discussion. The “aura” of the Mona Lisa as an original work glows from its once close proximity to an artistic genius, as well as its legacy through time and space. This ability is transcend time draws in global interest, yet the object remains difficult to see. He continues to say that the “aura” of an object begins to diminish when this becomes less difficult with mechanical reproduction.

This decay of an “aura” with reproduction makes Benjamin’s first definition rather paradoxical. While mass production makes the object available globally, this spread of information heightens the worth and experience of seeing the original. Since the image is famous worldwide, it will attract more crowds to the original work. If seeing the object is in high demand, it makes it that much more difficult to see, therefore reinstating the object with an “aura.”

To make this even more complex, Benjamin arrives at the subject of film. While his arguments suggest that film is less likely to create an “aura” as a work of art, it seems problematic that film cannot achieve the same effect as other original works of art.

Here he describes that an “aura” is about a person-to-person contact, and how film fails to achieve this phenomenon:

“This situation might also be characterized as follows: for the first time-and this is the effect of the film-man has to op- erate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura which, on the stage, emanates from Macbeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substi- tuted for the public. Consequently, the aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays” (Benjamin, 229).

While this follows the basic rules behind defining an “aura,” I find it difficult to believe that film cannot achieve the same effect through very different means. What gives an art object an “aura”? Its original quality, its snapshot into history, or the social demographic with whom it connects?

When films were being mass-produced in the 1940s, it allowed the working class the opportunity to see a snapshot of a world beyond them. These crowds that went to the movies every week heightened the fame of stars like Bette Davis and Cary Grant. The mass production of these films created an “aura” not for the film itself, but for the actors, the music, perhaps even the directors as fixtures in film history. The star system is based on the very “aura” phenomenon. Could it be that films cannot have an “aura,” but rather they are vehicles for creating them?

Film is unique in the sense that it is built from every art form, from two-dimensional design to performance. The “aura” is still found within the final product, like any work of art, but it can hold several. This is due to the polytechnic method of film production, relying on both man and machine, to create a work of art that encompasses all types of artistic expression.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, “The Work of Art in Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. 1st. New York: Shocken Books, 1968. 217-264. Print.

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